Sunoco Pipeline LP can restart flows on its Mariner East 1 NGL pipeline but construction of the larger Mariner East 2 and 2X pipeline projects remains suspended after a series of drilling-fluid spills, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission ruled.
The commission was ruling June 14 on the Energy Transfer Partners LP affiliate's appeal of a May 24 emergency order by a PUC judge halting operation of the 70,000-barrel-per-day Mariner 1 East and construction on the 345,000-bbl/d Mariner East 2 and 2X lines in West Whitehall Township. In a 3-2 vote, the PUC approved Sunoco's request to resume operations on Mariner East 1 and denied Sunoco's request for the commission overrule its own judge and lift the construction suspension on the pair of Mariner East 2 pipelines.
In her order shutting down the Mariner East family, PUC Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Barnes said the evidence made it appear that Sunoco was putting profits above safety. Barnes was ruling on a complaint filed by one of Chester County's state senators, Democrat Andy Dinniman, which cited the discovery of sinkholes beneath the Mariner East route through the town and Sunoco's more than 100 "inadvertent releases" of drilling mud across the state.
Barnes should have tossed Dinniman's complaint from the start because he lacks standing to sue, Sunoco said in a June 14 email after the PUC vote.
Dinniman lives about 2 miles from the sinkhole site and Barnes allowed his complaint to move forward because he is a representative for that part of Chester County. "This can only be seen as an inherently political decision as Sen. Dinniman does not have legal standing to bring this suit in his political capacity and if he lacks standing, the entire administrative law judge’s decision should have been reversed," Sunoco spokeswoman Lisa Dillinger said in an email. Sunoco said its examining its options but plans to complete the pipeline on time in the third quarter of this year.
Appalachian shale gas driller Range Resources Corp., an anchor shipper on Mariner East 1 with NGL contracts to fill in Europe, told analysts June 7 that it was finding alternate routes to market for the propane, butane and ethane it produces in western Pennsylvania or in some cases keeping ethane in the natural gas production stream.
PUC Chairman Gladys Brown introduced the motion for a split decision on Barnes' emergency ruling. "While there is insufficient evidence to support a finding that ME1 is being operated unsafely in West Whiteland Township, I do find that there is sufficient evidence to support a finding that the construction on ME2 and ME2X should remain halted until Sunoco meets the requirements that will be imposed by this motion."
Resumption of activity on Mariner East 2 and 2X will be addressed at a future PUC meeting, the commission said.
Two dissenting commissioners felt that there was not enough evidence that Mariner 2 and 2X posed an immediate threat to public safety. Spills of drilling muds, they said, are a water issue more properly under the jurisdiction of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP.
The DEP has suspended work on Mariner East 2 several times and reached a $12.6 million settlement with Sunoco for environmental violations in February, only to suspend construction again a month later over spills of drilling mud into fresh water resources.
Sunoco's Mariner East problems inspired another Chester County lawmaker, Republican Sen. John Rafferty, to introduce a resolution in Harrisburg to create a 23-member committee of politicians, first responders and industry to advise the legislature on writing new pipeline laws. That resolution earned a bipartisan 8-4 win on June 13 to move out of committee to the Senate floor.
The bill's sponsor, State Sen. John Rafferty, has made no secret that his bill is in reaction to Sunoco's history of violations while building Mariner East 2 and 2X. "Knowing that more of these major pipelines may be built, and the issues we have with the Sunoco Pipeline, it is crucial that we form a value-adding commission to ensure the residents of this Commonwealth have right to safe communities," Rafferty said in a statement June 12.